I’ll take you back to 1963 if I may. We lived in Brisbane and headed out into the country as much as we could. Two families packed our wagons and headed off on a Friday afternoon for a weekend camping by the Mooloolah River. Cutting up past Landsborough, we elected to try out a road we’d never before driven. I can’t remember its name but it wound its way precariously along ridge tops before weaving down into the Mooloolah valley.
Stopped near the highest point, we heard a car approaching at what sounded like warp speed. In no time at all, sideways (in a controlled oversteer) around a bend 70m or 80m away came a small car we didn’t recognise. The driver was obviously pretty switched on; he knew which end of a car needed to point mainly in the direction of travel. He gave us a smile and a wave as he continued on his merry way.
We learned later it was a well-known motoring journalist out road testing the soon-to-be released Hillman Imp. That was our first glimpse at what ought to have been a great little car, but one that sadly never quite became what it might have been.
Built by the Rootes Group (solid but stolid Hillman Minxes and Humber Hawks and Snipes), the Imp was the result of a mid-’50s exercise to produce a smaller, more efficiently packaged car still capable of carrying a family of four. In that very year, 1963, BMC released a similar concept in the Morris Mini Minor (or, simply, Morris 850 in Australia). Where the brilliant and successful Mini had a front-mounted 850cc four-cylinder engine that drove the front wheels, the Imp was rear engined and drove through the rear wheels.
It was a boxy little car, quite attractive for its time, with a low scuttle (the height at the bottom of the windscreen) and a relatively tall glasshouse allowing excellent vision for the passengers. The engine in the car we saw being thrashed within an inch of its life was screaming its head off. This, indeed, proved perhaps the greatest strength of an otherwise flawed product.
The engine manufacturer was an English firm called Coventry Climax who came to fame for manufacturing ultra-light engines adapted by racing car makers and used to power Grand Prix cars of the day. Their origins, though, were somewhat more plebeian. Post-World War II, the British government required fire pumps half the weight of the old and capable of shifting twice the volume, thus the birth of the new engine.
The great initial surprise with the Imp was its get up and go and its handling. The Climax engine (875cc, 29kW) revved happily and, with judicious use of the four-speed manual gearbox, managed to give the tiny car a sense of performance. With a swing axle front end and a rear suspension comprising trailing arms, the tail-happy Scottish-built car could be thrown around with gay abandon by an experienced punter, not unlike the day we first saw it. One of the reasons for its handling was a low centre of gravity, aided by the already light engine being slanted over at 45 degrees.
So then, if the Imp showed such promise, why hang a question mark over it? Sadly, because of its origins. It was assembled in a purpose-built factory intended to give employment to those whose shipbuilding jobs disappeared following the end of World War II. The workers, more accustomed to construction on large scale, never seemed to quite manage the change to operation with finer tolerances. Oh, and they brought with them their shipyard strikes and industrial disputes.
It was a great pity mechanical and electrical gremlins struck a design that might have been a whole lot more than it became. Interestingly – and perhaps prescient – the wheel brace could also be used as a crank handle to start the motor if all else failed. Despite its faults, 10 years’ production created 440,000 Imps. Contextually, various Minis managed over 6 million.